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Maximal Speed Development vs. Conditioning, A Systematic Approach

By: Matt Van Dyke and Cal Dietz

All coaches must understand and have the ability to differentiate between the implementation of drills intended to develop speed versus increasing their athletes’ conditioning levels. In order to truly improve the speed of an athlete, high quality work must be completed at all times. A significant part of this high quality work includes a requirement that rest time be sufficient to allow complete recovery of the body and the nervous system prior to the start of the next repetition. Any time an athlete is not given adequate time to properly recover from a specific drill that drill becomes a conditioning tool. In the world of competitive sports, it is absolutely necessary to develop maximal speed and conditioning levels, but the differences between training for each of these qualities must be understood.

Speed Development Training

Speed development training in its simplest form requires one thing, SPEED. In order to improve the maximal speed of an athlete, they must be running at top, or near top speeds. Maximal speed training is the most demanding activity on the nervous system, and thus requires full rest times between repetitions to allow sustained, top speeds to be achieved. Full rest times between each repetition allow an athlete to repeat high-quality drills of maximal speed. If proper rest times are not allowed, athletes are simply being trained to run fast under fatigued conditions, and not to truly improve maximal speed.

If an entire training session is designated to speed training, it is critical that proper rest times be given. However, if a weight training or other training session also is being completed, it is important to implement speed development training at the proper time within the training session. Due to the high neural requirement of sprinting, maximal speed must be trained while the athlete is fresh, typically early in the training session just after the warm-up has been completed. This is the period of time an athlete has the greatest ability to adapt to training.

Agility drills also can be used to train speed development since the ability to change directions is vital in athletic performance. Agility drills are one of the most effective ways to improve change of direction abilities. Cone drills should be trained using proper cutting mechanics, using a single foot, proper edge work of the foot, working all drills in a straight line with no wasted motion, etc. Simple cone drills can become great speed development training tools when work times are matched to the training day and work to rest ratios are set appropriately.

I base the time of my repetitions of speed development work based on the training time of the day. I use strictly timed sets in the weight room based on the modified undulated system. This method allows me to control each set based on time, rather than reps, which increases the amount of work each athlete completes per set. Programming training times just above, just below, and right at competition times optimize transfer of training for each individual sport. For example, if my athletes are completing a 5 second training session, every repetition completed in the weight room will be 5 seconds. I can then apply this timed method to my agility speed development training and make each rep 5 seconds in length. This pushes the adaptation of the body in the same way for the entire training session.

The chart below provides examples of times I have used to improve my athlete’s maximal speed and agility abilities. Remember, these are just general recommendations; athletes may need longer rest times and more or fewer repetitions depending upon their ability to recover from high-intensity work. 

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Improving Conditioning Levels

Now that the methods to improve maximal speed are understood, the conditioning aspect becomes relatively simple. Anytime an athlete is not allowed full recovery between sets, that drill becomes a conditioning tool. Conditioning is used to prepare an athlete for their actual competition. An easy example of the need for conditioning is a wide receiver during a 10 play drive in a football game. If he only trained according to the speed development model above leading up to a game, he may be the fastest player on the field, for the first play that is. After that first play, he will slow down substantially since he does not have the ability to recover between high intensity repetitions. His body was not trained in a conditioning aspect, so he is not prepared to truly compete in the sport of football, which requires maximal effort with less than full recovery rest times.

Let’s take conditioning another step though. Conditioning should be much more than simply making an athlete tired, giving them less than full recovery, and having them complete another sprint. The purpose of conditioning should always be to prepare an athlete for the next phase of their program, whether it is training in the weight room, on the practice field for a pre-season camp, or the competition season. Your conditioning methods can become as specific as you want them to be, even within the same sport. The total yardage covered during a football game is completely different between the wide receiver in our example above, and an offensive lineman of the same team, even though they are running the same offensive play. If conditioning is programmed and completed correctly, there will be a much smaller need for conditioning, if any is needed at all, during a pre-season camp or the competition season.

Conditioning can be achieved through methods other than running. A high tempo lift, as well as interval training, will drive the adaptation qualities of conditioning just as effectively as running, especially if the same work to rest ratio is utilized to prepare athletes for their next phase. Conditioning always should be completed at the end of a training session if it is a desired adaptation in that specific training phase. Completing conditioning at the end of training ensures that skill learning is not hindered which should be the ultimate goal for coaches and athletes.

Conditioning is often one of the biggest issues between strength and sport coaches during the competition period. As stated above, if conditioning is programmed and executed correctly leading up to the pre-season camp or competition period, the athletes will be prepared from a conditioning standpoint for that pre-season or competitive phase. Once that phase begins, the conditioning tool used is the practice itself, so the focus can be placed on preparing athletes with the skills needed for competition. This is the most specific training tool a sport coach has. There is no way to better prepare an athlete than with a properly scripted practice that will prepare the athlete for the tempo, and position specific volume, experienced in game situations. That being said, I am not suggesting I have the ability to do what a sport coach does programming wise. I am responsible for preparing athletes for the rigors of training camp or practice. Once training camp or practice begins, athletes should receive conditioning through properly programmed practices. This is because, simply put, that is the most specific, and transferrable, conditioning model available - their actual sporting event.

The final aspect of putting together a complete conditioning program is the consideration of time. Not only the conditioning time, but also the rest times allowed. Timed reps to match that specific training day should be used to optimize adaptations within each athlete. The reasoning for this is detailed above in the speed development training section. If more volume is desired, reps should be added to the program, not longer distances. This reinforces the concept of keeping training specificity as high as possible. Rest times must be carefully considered and should match the goal of each training phase. Be sure to anticipate what the upcoming phase will require of the athlete since it is always the goal to optimally prepare each athlete for the next phase. If the upcoming phase is camp, not only is total yardage important, but also the yardage covered at different intensity ranges. And of course, the rest times between reps must be considered.

Conditioning must always serve a purpose. Any average Joe can make an athlete tired. The key focus as a coach is to drive the desired adaptations within your athletes. Conditioning should be used to determine an athlete’s ability to complete high velocity movements with less than complete recovery times. These shorter rest times, along with timed sets just above, just below, and right at game times, prepare athletes for the specific rigors of competition. The optimal way to condition is actually completing the event.

To see the specific, in-depth, physiological changes seen in athletes due to different conditioning methods, click here

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